What Martin Luther King Jr. Taught His Son About Protest

By Virginia Lowman

What translates as Martin Luther King III shares memories of his father, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is the gentle intimacy and admiration between a child and his parent. When we speak in late December, he brings stories of a man whose teachings I’ve studied since I was a young girl, but who I have only known in a scholarly sense. It is both shocking and endearing to hear someone refer to the iconic civil rights leader as “Dad.”

On our Zoom call, King speaks warmly of playing baseball in the front yard with “Dad” and two of his siblings. He talks about traveling with his father as a boy in 1967 to organize for the Poor People’s Campaign in the fight for fair wages. He recalls the family’s nightly routine, the “kissing spot,” where each child was given a designated place on Dr. King’s face for their bedtime kiss. These intimate moments of parental love formed the basic principles for Dr. King’s culture-shifting speeches and groundbreaking organizing work.

This August will mark 58 years since Dr. King delivered his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which continues to resonate today, harkening for equity and a better world for all. As we near the close of a tumultuous four years, it’s essential to remember that this unprecedented time not only highlighted the many deep-seated injustices in our country’s foundation but also compelled people of all ethnicities to champion change. “The most important thing [activists] can have is a strategic plan,” King suggests for the path forward.

In the aftermath of a year of protests against institutional racism, calls for police reform in the fight for Black lives, and the siege of the U.S. Capitol, Dr. King’s lessons and his strategic approach to enacting change are crucial guideposts for a new generation called to action as America grapples with its roots. Here, Martin Luther King III shares what he learned from his father about life and protest for experienced and emerging activists alike.

Make love your foundation.

It should come as no surprise that love was a core value in the King household. In fact, as King explains, the first thing he learned from his father and mother, activist Coretta Scott King, was an age-old adage: “You can’t really love others until you really, truly love yourself.” King notes that this was the “broad lesson” of his childhood, and it was constantly reinforced. “My parents taught us to love ourselves, they taught us to love our families, they taught us to have a love of our community, and they taught us the love of God,” he says.

This informs how King pursues his work and handles conflict. “You can disagree with someone without being disagreeable,” he adds, meaning without causing harm to someone or their property. Approaching life with compassion as the moral compass helps to maintain a level of respect and dignity, two principles Martin Luther King Jr. championed.

Strive to eradicate “triple evils.”

As King expounds love as a foundation, he also knows how it goes beyond the individual. “[Self-love] extends to the community,” he says. “When you love your community, there are things that you don’t accept. Poverty is one of them.” The legacy of his parents is rooted in that idea, and he explains how they hoped to eradicate the “triple evils” of poverty, racism, and violence.

“My dad and his team were willing to go to jail for [equality],” King says. “As a kid, I thought that if something was wrong in our society and you wanted to correct it, you go to jail, because that’s when the situation would be addressed.” The lesson isn’t that we should normalize breaking the law, but that when the laws are not rooted in equity, we should lean into what the late Representative John Lewis called “good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Activism requires strategy.

For the oppressed and marginalized, King says, civil law does not change without strategy: “If you want to be effective and successful, you must have a plan,” he says. Perhaps one of the most profound plans of the civil rights movement was “Project C,” a year of strategy and coordination across numerous Southern states to engage in sit-ins, boycotts, and other peaceful demonstrations to combat segregation.

The “C” stood for confrontation. Additionally, the four pillars King’s father laid out in his 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” — fact-finding, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action — are still evident in the work of many activists today. Perhaps the most interesting pillar is self-purification, which, as Dr. King wrote, deals with asking the questions, “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating? Are you about to endure the ordeals of jail?” King points to the peaceful protests of the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement, saying his parents would be proud and that they “always applauded young people’s engagement and encouraged it.”

Factor economic disruption, patience, and rest into your plan.

Disrupting economics is often the long game of protest, often yielding the greatest return because of its relationship to capitalism. As fellow civil rights organizer Wyatt Tee Walker knew, demonstrators would have to “mess with the money and make it inconvenient for the white community.” King considers this the greatest strategy, though he notes that it requires “a degree of patience.” He also mentions that a question often posed in movements from his father’s time was: “After confrontation, then what?” King charges present activists to “know when to have patience and when to be forthright,” and to acknowledge that one cannot be engaged in physical protest all of the time.

Practice forgiveness.

King says practicing forgiveness is the primary lesson his father taught him by example. He does note, however, that it was made manifest through his grandfather, Martin Luther King Sr. Despite his wife being gunned down in an Atlanta church just six years after their son was killed in Memphis, the eldest King said, “I refuse to hate [the people who] killed my wife and my son,” his grandson remembers. It is here that Dr. King’s lessons came full-circle.

King says he learned that in order to decide to reject hatred, you must go forth in love. As people continue to take to the streets in pursuit of systemic change and execute their civic duty at the polls, it’s important to remember the lessons of those who came before us. Hold fast to compassion, honor strategy and community, and remember that enacting change does not require violence — it takes accountability.

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